Youth Undergrowth

When the gales of this summer’s big storm blew beyond the Steger Wilderness Center, it
seemed to have trailered in its own recovery crew. A team from Summer Youth Corps (SYC)
rode in just days later to help wrangle the aftermath.


The Summer Youth Corps with Will Steger: (back row, L to R) Laura Pratt, Will Steger, Sam Lancaster, Kristi Yang, Hannah Weiss, Charlie Reber; (front row, L to R) June Roettger and Yang (James) Deng.

SYC is a youth development program of Conservation Corps Minnesota (CCM) geared toward high school age students. It provides hands-on work and personal growth experiences in natural resource fields, among others. For many of those youth, the opportunity is their first paying job.

Crew leader Hannah Weiss is a senior at the University of Vermont where she’s studying environmental science. She described the SYC work as physically demanding. It started with basic training at base camp in St. Croix State Park along the St. Croix River. Afterward, the crew departed on what CCM calls “spikes,” a variety of environmental projects often involving manual labor. The crew was on the move, traveling to projects that typically lasted from one to three weeks.

Weiss said the crew at the Wilderness Center focused primarily on cleanup from the July 21 blowdown. They hauled trees, brush and lumber, stacked wood and lopped branches. They also cut saplings from the hillside adjacent to the lake to encourage pine growth and expose the underlying greenstone.


SYC member Kristi Yang clears branches and brush as part of the cleanup at the Wilderness Center.

Kristi Yang, 17, lives in Brooklyn Park, Minn. She said she’s lived in a city environment all her life. But she heard stories from two friends who had participated in SYC and she decided to sign up. Other than helping her grandparents cart vegetables to a farmers’ market, she hadn’t had much exposure to manual labor. Previously, she was a cashier at a supermarket. Though the work for SYC was far different, she discovered something about herself.

“I really like it. I feel I was born to do this,” she said.

Charlie Reber, 16, is from St. Joseph, Minn. Four of his brothers have worked for SYC and one of them is currently on the staff at CCM. He said his brothers always told good stories of their experiences and he wanted to be part of it. Now that he’s had an intensive chance, he appreciates the work ethic he learned.


SYC members Charlie Reber (left) and Yang (James) Deng haul lumber at the center.

“The hardest part for me, was the [physical] work…[But] being here is not about the work. You don’t have to be physically able to perform on the job site…Just keep a steady pace. Keep quality over quantity,” he said.

According to Weiss, the crew normally resided at campgrounds, lived in tents and used camp stoves for cooking. But she said they were living in the lap of luxury at the Wilderness Center with kitchen facilities and sleeping accommodations—with beds—in the guest house.

“They love this place. They really enjoy having access to a full kitchen because that is an incredibly unique privilege,” she said.

Weiss also explained that the SYC hiring process mindfully selects a broad range of students with diverse personalities and backgrounds. She said this particular crew really stepped up and had few complaints. “I’m very proud of them. It’s not always the case with crews.”


The entire Summer Youth Corps crew spent hours lopping branches and cutting away saplings on the ledge wall beside the lake to encourage pine growth and expose the greenstone.

Samantha “Sam” Lancaster, 17, is from Somerset, Wis. She said she’s not a particularly social person, but intentionally joined SYC to leave her comfort zone. She didn’t know any of the other students and was nervous at base camp. She didn’t talk much at the time, but opened up afterward and she loved the work. She said the lopping sessions and time in the field allowed them to talk, get to know each other and become closer.

The Wilderness Center complex and the philosophy behind it also made an impression on the crew. Lancaster indicated an historical and physical appreciation for the setting.


“I like to think that I’m a little bit a part of that now, the hillside and clearing the brush,” she
said. Then she added, “I actually really like that it’s far away. You can see the stars at night.”

For Reber, the wilderness location and opportunity to work in it were second to none. “I’ve heard some spikes are weeding parking lots. Can you imagine that? So I think we’re really lucky,” he stated.


Evening offers a chance to rest and sing around the campfire.

Each crew member noted they had stand-out moments. Reber said he was amazed at how he learned to interact well with people who were from such different places. “Everyone’s got a different story. That’s what I think I can use the most. It’s being able to work with all different types of kids and everyone’s got a different personality.”

Likewise, Yang said the teamwork will stick in her memory. But she also won’t forget the
surroundings. “I’ll take time to appreciate the little nature we have in the Cities. People [there] don’t really pay attention to it.”

Lancaster said SYC was instrumental in helping her learn about working in environmental fields. She’d like to return to the Wilderness Center for one of the summer apprenticeships. “I really like how [Will] is so forward about the environment.”

For more information on Conservation Corps Minnesota, visit online at
or call 651-209- 9900.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff

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